Contributed/EPA Region 10
JOHN DAY – An Environmental Protection Agency emergency response team is looking into the odors seeping into homes and businesses in the southwest part of the city.
The EPA crew arrived last Thursday and continued its work through the holiday weekend, going door-to-door to take indoor air readings at homes and offices in a 10-block area of the city.
Judy Smith, EPA community outreach coordinator, said the state Department of Environmental Quality is sending someone this week to work with the interagency investigation.
The testing comes after local agencies, including the city fire, police and public works departments, responded to complaints about fumes rising from basements and crawl spaces.
The first report came in March, when the problem cropped up at the Soil and Water Conservation District offices on Canyon Boulevard. The concern ramped up earlier this month when the problem appeared to migrate underground to nearby residences and buildings, including the Grant County Library and the Canyon Creek Apartments.
“Our immediate concern was to ensure that people were safe – and to find out where the fumes are coming from, what they are, and how much is present,” Smith said of the EPA response.
Smith said the labwork so far indicates that volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, are venting up through the ground. She said VOCs are a class of chemicals that can be found in a wide range of household and industrial products.
Smith said they are not uncommon in small amounts in buildings. However, she said, VOCs can pose a health hazard when in concentrations above 5,000 parts per billion.
She said toxicology tests showed 27 homes that had some VOCs present, and about a dozen exceeded the 5,000 rate. Residents throughout the area were advised to ventilate their basements, crawl spaces and living spaces thoroughly.
An EPA tip list cites ventilation as the most important measure. For the homes with higher readings, the agency also recommends filling cracks in concrete floors, using vapor barriers like black plastic in craw spaces, and limiting the time spent in any room where there’s an unusual odor.
“We’ve been finding that those measures have been effective,” Smith said.
The crew returned to the neighborhood to check some homes that were closed up over the Memorial Day weekend, and also to resample the air in some homes that had high readings.
Smith said the agency also is bringing in geo probes to take subsurface samples from the water table this week.
“We do believe it’s coming from the ground water,” she said.
However, the initial source – where it enters the ground – has not been identified.
Tests by a private consultant earlier this month found substances that did not appear to be petroleum-based, but Smith said the EPA is still running tests.
“We’re not ruling anything out at this point,” she said.
The EPA reiterated city officials’ advice to residents about ventilation, and Smith added it’s important to continue to ventilate as long as the situation remains unresolved.
Residents who notice any unusual odor should call John Day Dispatch, 541-575-0030, and their information will be shared with the EPA. For concerns about health issues, call the Grant County Health Department, 541-575-0429. Homeowners may also want to contact their insurance providers to discuss any concerns.